Longing to fix life: Refugee Nuha Suleiman Ahmed on failure to launch
Why We Wrote This
This Sudanese refugee in Jordan just finished beauty school as the pandemic was closing salons. Her experience offers an intimate glimpse into the hope she still kindles, like other 21-year-olds in the Monitor’s interactive 21 in ’21 global report about a generation on the cusp of adulthood.
Nuha Suleiman Ahmed is a Sudanese refugee living in an apartment in the Wihdat refugee camp in Amman, Jordan. "It’s as if the coronavirus has taught me not to wish for things, not to be hopeful, not to believe things can get better," she says. But it has not suppressed all hope – she regularly looks for work and is always looking for materials to improve their apartment.
January 22, 2021
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By Nuha Suleiman Ahmed
as told to Taylor Luck
I pause to look at her face and choose the foundation carefully. Her complexion is fair – all Jordanians’ complexions are fairer than mine – so I choose a soft beige tone of foundation. For eyeliner, I choose turquoise. I carefully select a blush that will bring a rosy color of life to her cheeks, but not so bright or so dark that it would make her look like a doll. She fidgets in the chair and brushes her silky black hair back. She is beautiful; we are all beautiful – we just need to make the right choices, bring out the right colors, the right combinations. I finish with the concealer, one last powder of her face. She looks in the mirror and tilts her head to the right and the left.
“How do you like it?” I ask.
“Halweh,” says the volunteer I’m practicing on at the beauty school at which I study. “It looks very beautiful. You made me look pretty.”
My heart feels warm; I feel a surge of confidence when she compliments my work. I can make things better. I can make things beautiful.
All I want to do in life is to bring beauty where people don’t always see it, to fix things, cover up blemishes, make things work.
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Unfortunately, there’s no makeup kit big enough to beautify life. There’s no makeup kit that can fix leaky pipes and broken doors, create jobs, gloss over years lost to war, conceal the past, or paint a better future for a family. There’s no makeup kit that can change my life as a Sudanese refugee with a brushstroke.
A fledgling beautician, Nuha Suleiman Ahmed practices hairstyling. More than the coronavirus itself, she says, “what I am really afraid of is the lockdown. If we go back to sitting at home with no money, not being able to eat or pay rent, what do we do?” She searches diligently for a salon job – but with pandemic lockdowns, women are not going out to socialize, or to get beautified at a salon these days.
I’m once again trying to give our apartment a makeover. It is a difficult task – it is the third apartment we’ve moved into since the pandemic began and my sisters lost their jobs. It was the cheapest rent we found. It is also, by far, the worst.
When we first saw the apartment, in a blackened building in the Wihdat refugee camp, above a hardware store, I thought we can make this work. We just needed to look at it the right way. It had four rooms, enough for the nine of us: me, my parents, two brothers, sister, her husband, and two kids. It was in the center of a busy working-class area – easier for us to find odd jobs. This is a Palestinian camp, but we have neighbors from all over the region. Anyone who is in need of a second chance comes here because the rent is cheap. It is crowded, but no one gets into our business. We are left alone here.
When we learned there was no water tank on the roof and we could not get water to our apartment, we found an old tank, took it to an ironsmith to patch up the rusted holes, and installed it. We covered missing glass panes with wood. Each night, I pushed a wooden cabinet and a television behind the main door, which would not close or lock, until we finally found a used door for $20, spending the money I’d saved for a cosmetology kit.
Nuha Suleiman Ahmed’s niece and nephew play as she watches them – it is often her only entertainment since the family’s television broke. Her extended family has lived in three successively smaller apartments since pandemic lockdowns began and members of the family started losing their jobs.
But there is only so far a touch-up can go. November rains soaked through the ceiling and wrecked the rug that kept us warm. Our television died, then our kerosene heater.
Now that I have my beautician degree, my academy is looking for an opening and I’m going from salon to salon. But nobody is hiring, due to the pandemic. Most salon work comes from weddings and evenings out, when women come in the afternoon to have makeup applied and their hair styled just so. But now with no wedding parties and no evenings out, there’s little demand for salons.
“We are letting people go,” they say. “Not bringing on new people.”
I even tried the salon in the bad neighborhood at the other end of the camp, where gangs of zouran (troublemakers) hang out and drink, curse, fight, and throw rocks at us because we are Black. The salon there was cramped, moldy, without heat, without decor, unloved.
Some days I feel powerless against this reality, like I hit a wall. I wake up past noon, I want to surrender, to sleep the year off. It’s as if the coronavirus has taught me not to wish for things, not to be hopeful, not to believe things can get better. Whenever I feel low or discouraged, I try to remember the few times I felt self-confidence, when I could shape things with my hands. I remember Miss Nadine, my makeup instructor at the academy, one of the few people who encouraged me.
“You did a nice job there,” Miss Nadine said as I completed my makeup test. “But maybe you can improve it by lessening the eye shadow. Less blush. Thicker eyeliner.” She never told me I was wrong or bad, just that I can improve. I remind myself: I know I can improve.
Back in our apartment, my niece sits in my lap. I pretend to braid her hair, pluck her eyebrows, and apply foundation with imaginary brushes and tweezers as she giggles. I hold up my phone to her, her face reflecting in the screen.
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“What do you think?” I ask. She nods her head and approves.
“Halweh,” she whispers in my ear. Beautiful.